The scholar comes forward and, to test Jesus, asks Him an insincere question — or, rather, asks him a good question in an insincere manner: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25) Of course, our Lord knows the man’s heart. So He responds with two questions of His own: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Lk 10:26) It does not appear (at least in the English) that these questions are merely different ways of asking the same thing. The second question follows, not to reinforce the first but to get at a different issue altogether. Our Lord’s first question concerns the content of the law. His second concerns the disposition of the reader.
His two questions touch on the two poles of revelation. There is first the objective content of God’s truth: “What is written in the law?” Then there is the subjective reception by the individual: “How do you read it?” These two poles must go together. It is not enough to read the truth. We must read it with the proper disposition.
The scholar answers the first question correctly. He knows the content of the law. But he fumbles the second question because he does not read in the proper manner. He reads Scripture with a view to justifying himself. He uses the content of the law — God’s revealed Word — not to grow in holiness or advance in virtue or know God … but to show off, to prove himself before God.
The whole episode alerts us to the importance of being properly disposed to receive the truth, and in particular to read Scripture. For the content of God’s word (“What is written in the law?”) to benefit us, we must receive it with the proper disposition (“How do you read it?”). So, what characterizes this proper disposition? How do we read?
First, we should read Scripture with a view to being instructed, not just to master the material. The Bible is not a textbook. We do not simply study it, get the stories, facts, and figures and then close it up. We read Scripture so that we will discern the truth to which we should conform our lives. If we do not have a prior willingness to change and be changed, then many of Scripture’s truths will remain inaccessible to us. The scholar in the Gospel erred in that he had mastered the material — but he had not allowed the material to master him.
Second, we should read Scripture to encounter God’s proofs, not to prove ourselves. The scholar wanted to prove — to justify — himself by rattling off memorized verses. He was showing off and using Scripture to do so. As a result he missed the meaning of Scripture: It is a record of God’s faithfulness and saving deeds, a proof of His fidelity to sinful man. If our purpose is self-promotion, we will never penetrate this meaning of Scripture.
Third, we should read Scripture with confidence in its truth. Those who approach Scripture with a critical or suspicious eye will never benefit from it. They have set themselves up as the Bible’s judges (“Well, we know that in fact that miracle could not have happened … Jesus could not have said that … What St. Paul really means is … , etc.”). When we run across a difficult passage — perhaps hard to understand, more likely hard to accept — we should presume that the problem is not with God’s word but with our reading or understanding of it. The problem is not the content of what we read but how we read it.
God’s word seeks the proper recipient. It does not desire the mere intellectual who wants to conquer a challenging text, or the boastful reader who wants to exalt himself or the critic who reads with a jaundiced eye. Scripture seeks those who, as they open the pages, also open themselves to the word.